Each autistic child and young person has individual needs and abilities. Here, we look at the challenges they may face and informal ways you can help.
We also talk about how they can benefit from more formal frameworks and strategies.
There are now many pupils in mainstream schools who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger syndrome and those with a demand avoidant profile.
Some may have accompanying learning disabilities or other conditions sometimes related to autism, such as ADHD.
As an education professional working with children and young people, you will come across pupils who you believe may be autistic but don’t have a diagnosis. You can read more about recognising autism and planning the right support.
Pupils with a demand avoidant profile will need differing education interventions and approaches. Find out more about how to help a pupil with a demand avoidant profile in your school.
Challenges that autistic pupils may face
Children and young people on the autism spectrum often need routine in order to help them understand the world around them. This means that they can find unstructured times such as lunch and break times particularly difficult.
They need longer to process information and can also find socialising and communicating challenging. Many want to make friends, but find it hard as they lack the expected social skills. They are often bullied as their peers can lack autism awareness and acceptance.
Some may have intense interests that can affect their ability to take part in the school day.
In addition to this, many will have difficulty processing sensory information. This can occur in one or more of the seven senses. Their senses can be intensified (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive). The degree of difficulty will vary from one individual to another and according to other factors such as mood and levels of stress and stimuli.
Trying to cope with the above during the school day can lead to anxiety, behaviour that challenges and meltdowns. Often, autistic pupils will not show the stress they are feeling while they are at school, leading to different behaviour between school and home.
The behaviour of some autistic children and young people can be challenging in school. This behaviour is often due to an underlying anxiety, frustration or sensory sensitivity. It’s not always clear what has triggered it, making it hard to control the situation and identify useful strategies.
It’s helpful to monitor behaviour to see if you and the child or young person can start to recognise when anxiety or frustration is starting to build. You can then talk to them about what would help and put appropriate support in place.
Informal ways you can help
Here are some simple things you can do to help:
- use a routine they have created or which has been mutually agreed
- make sure that you prepare them for any change to their routine
- use visual supports to help them better understand their routine and the school day, this can include resources such as a time timer
- simplify communication and allow time for them to process information
- try social stories to develop greater social understanding
- consider the school environment and think about how you can make it more comfortable. For example, a pupil who struggles to block out background noise may benefit from wearing ear defenders
- deal with any bullying promptly. If a child or young person is unable to say what happened then it may help to ask them to draw a picture of an incident
- teach autism awareness and acceptance
- think about how you can incorporate their intense interest into lessons. For example, Minecraft have an education edition
- keep a behaviour diary/ABC chart
- use a stress scale to turn emotions into more concrete concepts. The Incredible 5 point scale is a much used resource
- have an agreed safe and quiet place for autistic pupils to go to when they feel anxiety building or are overloaded by sensory stimuli. This shouldn’t be the same place as where pupils are sent as a form of punishment
- allow autistic pupils to have a time out card or exit pass to indicate to teaching staff that they are feeling anxious and need to leave the classroom
- establish good communication with parents/carers. They know their child best and may be able to suggest interventions to use.
Trying these informal techniques can help autistic children and young people to feel better supported in school. This can lead to a reduction in school refusal and exclusion.
However, it’s important to remember that each child is an individual and what works for one autistic pupil may not work for another. For example, children and young people with a demand avoidant profile will need different education strategies.
A teacher incorporating Minecraft into a maths lesson.
Frameworks and strategies
Here are some formal frameworks and strategies that can be used with autistic children and young people:
SPELL is our charity's framework for understanding and responding to the needs of children and adults on the autism spectrum. Find out more about SPELL.
The SCERTS model focuses on building competence in Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support. Find out more about SCERTS.
This approach tries to respond to the needs of autistic people using the best available approaches and methods known so far, for educating and teaching autonomy. It is not a single method and can be used alongside other approaches. Find out more about TEACCH.
SULP is a framework within which to enhance personal, emotional and social development from a communication and thinking skills perspective. Find out more about SULP primary and secondary.
A sensory diet is a carefully designed, personalised activity plan that provides the sensory input an autistic pupil needs stay focused throughout the school day. Find out more about the importance of occupational therapy and sensory diets.
Positive behaviour support
Positive behavioural support (PBS) is a way of supporting autistic pupils who display, or are at risk of displaying, behaviour which challenges. Find out more about positive behaviour support.
Although there’s no clear evidence of the benefits for autistic people, staff at our Daldorch House School have found yoga to be helpful for pupils, and now offer a regular yoga club.
Visit the Research Autism website to find out about educational approaches for autistic pupils.
Further help from our charity
NAS membership with quarterly editions of Your Autism Magazine and annual education supplement
Teaching young children
MyWorld free teacher resources
Network Autism - Education and autism Q&A with Principal of Radlett Lodge school and Creating-autism friendly classrooms
Helping young children with autism to learn
Autism in the primary classroom
Autism in the secondary classroom
Autism, sport and physical activity booklet
Our autism library
Our online training
Choosing Autism Interventions - A Research-Based Guide
Autism Education Trust - Schools autism competency framework (England only)
NASEN - SEND Gateway
The Scottish Government and Scottish Autism - Autism Toolbox
The PDA society - Booklet for Health, Education and Social Care Practitioners.
Last reviewed: 24 April 2017.